The Man Who Knew Everyone . . . And Wrote about Them

The Greville Memoirs, by Charles C.F. Greville, edited by Henry ReeveWe have commented before on what a closed society the nineteenth-century intelligentsia was, with everyone seeming to be connected with everyone else, by blood, marriage, friendship, or as part of a circle of colleagues with shared interests.

In the social and political world it was similar. The networker par excellence was diarist Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville (1794–1865) who was ideally placed by birth and education to hob-nob with all the people who mattered. The son of an MP and grandson of the 3rd Duke of Portland, who was twice Prime Minister, he was educated at Eton and Oxford. He did not finish his degree, as his grandfather’s influence got him a post as private secretary to the Earl of Bathurst, secretary of state for war, and also a lucrative sinecure as absentee Secretary of Jamaica. He also served for forty years as a clerk to the Privy Council, which paid £2,000 p.a. for doing very little. These positions meant that he could live a comfortable and fashionable life, mixing with all the great political names of the day, including Wellington, Melbourne, Palmerston, Peel, Clarendon, the duke of Bedford, the earl of Aberdeen, and Lord Holland. Greville was also keen on sport, playing first-class cricket for the MCC, and managed the Duke of York’s racing stables.

His birth, background, good looks and intelligence made him a welcome guest at many of the stately homes of England, such as Chatsworth, Petworth and Woburn, and he was deeply interested in people and their behaviour. He was a great collector of information, believing that ‘there is always something to be learned from everybody if you touch them on the points they know’. An indefatigable diarist throughout his life, Greville always intended that his journals should be published after his death, as an historical source for the reigns of George IV, William IV and the first third of that of Queen Victoria. He was no gossip, however, and does not record scandals or rumour, but tells what he saw and heard. If he learned that what he had recorded was incorrect, or that he had drawn an unfairly negative personality sketch of someone, he revised it. But he certainly is a name- dropper, and proud of all his famous connections and of the intimacy he had with them.

The eight-volume edition which the Cambridge Library Collection is reissuing was published gradually between 1874 and 1887, and then as a set in 1888, but despite having been carefully edited, it caused outrage in those who featured in it, such as Disraeli and Queen Victoria, who saw it as a great betrayal of trust. One reviewer described it as ‘like Judas writing the lives of the apostles’. Despite this, in his lifetime he was a highly valued friend to many, noted for his kindness and generosity.

The books are a delight to dip into at random, and I found many references to people we are publishing in the Collection. On 24 January 1831, Greville spent an hour with Sir William Napier discussing the state of the country. On 16 October 1843, he recorded going to breakfast with George Lewis to meet Leopold van Ranke, along with Macaulay, Sir Alexander Duff Gordon and his wife Lucie, daughter of Ranke’s translator, Mrs Austin, and Sir Edmund Head. Expecting fascinating conversation between the two great historians, he was to be disappointed. ‘The professor, a vivacious little man, not distinguished in appearance, could talk no English, and his French, though spoken fluently, was quite unintelligible. On the other hand, Macaulay could not speak German, and he spoke French without any facility and with a very vile accent . . .  This babel of a breakfast, at which it was impossible for seven people to converse in any common language, soon came to an end, and Ranke was evidently glad to go off to the State Paper Office, where he was working every day.’

Although he later regretting not reading more, he did record his observations on some books he came across. In February 1838 Greville was reading the Dispatches of the Duke of Wellington, making notes on what was revealed in them of his character, and comparing him very favourably to other great generals of history.

While many of the entries relate to politics, there is also a great deal of interest to the social historian. In July 1837 Greville travelled from Birmingham to the Liverpool races by train, an experience he describes as follows. ‘The first sensation is a slight degree of nervousness and a feeling of being run away with, but a sense of security soon supervenes, and the velocity is delightful. Town after town, one park and château after another, are left behind with the rapid variety of a moving panorama, and the continual bustle and animation of the changes and stoppages make the journey very entertaining . . .  Considering the novelty of its establishment, there is very little embarrassment, and it certainly renders all other travelling irksome and tedious by comparison.’

Preferring to observe the crowds, Greville did not attend the opening of the Great Exhibition in May 1851, but stayed outside. ‘It was a wonderful spectacle to see the countless multitudes, streaming along in every direction, and congregated upon each bank of the Serpentine down to the water’s edge; no soldiers, hardly any policemen to be seen, and yet all so orderly and good-humoured . . . all the world has been flocking to the Crystal Palace, and we hear nothing but expressions of wonder and admiration. The frondeurs are all come round, and those who abused in most vehemently now praise it as much.’

The Greville Memoirs are a great read, giving a feel for the period that no more balanced modern history can provide. He is frank, forthright and at times caustic, particularly about the Hanoverian royal family, which particularly insulted Queen Victoria, although he is in fact complimentary to her, and greatly admired Prince Albert.


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2 Responses to The Man Who Knew Everyone . . . And Wrote about Them

  1. Pingback: Topography In A Very Small World | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: A List of Gossips | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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